We get the question all the time: Are there soldiers still buried on the battlefield? And we answer them: Maybe.
Technically the dead buried on the field were cared for in post-war efforts to locate, identify, and reinter them. During this process the National Cemetery system was created to hold Union soldiers killed during the war and veterans who died later. These cemeteries were located near the battlefields whose dead they hold: Gettysburg, Fredericksburg, Antietam, Vicksburg….
But there is the possiblity that some bodies were missed. With thousands of bodies (and many more wounded) to deal with after battles and winter encampments, some may have slipped through the cracks. For example, remains were found in 1995 in the Railroad Cut at Gettysburg and Chatham (Fredericksburg) and Cancellorsville both have the graves of unknown soldiers who were discovered later and not brought to the National Cemetery.
The most recent discovery was made by a visitor to Antietam in October 2008. While walking through the Cornfield, he noticed a pile of dirt disturbed by a groundhog. On closer inspection, he realized what he had stumbled upon. What the park unovered was more than 400 bone fragments from 24 different bones, seven coat buttons, two New York state cuff buttons from the left sleeve, six trouser buttons, a leather strap and a belt buckle. The New York buttons were enough to identify the man as a New York soldier, although his actual identity remains unknown. The items were placed into a box made by a carpenter at Antietam from a walnut tree cut down on the battlefield and stored at the National Cemeter Lodge.
The young man, believed to be between 17 and 19 years old, was then transferred from Antietam to the custody of the Maryland National Guard on September 15, 2009 to begin the journey home, escorted on the 330 mile trip by the Patriot Guard Riders Association. The New York National Guard accepted the remains and brought them to the New York Military Museum to lay in state before burial. He was buried on September 17, 2009, the 147th anniversary of the battle which claimed his life.
I was a student near Albany, NY at the time, in my senior year at Siena College. Having no classes that morning, a few of my friends and I drove up to the Gerald B.H. Solomon Saratoga National Cemetery in Schuylerville, N.Y for this soldier’s funeral. It was an amazing experience. The coffin arrived in a modern herst followed still by the Patriot Guard. It was then transferred to a historical herst by Civil War reenactor pall bearers. The funeral was set in the post-war period, presented through the inclusion of reenactors portraying Ulysses S. Grant and his wife during his presidential years. To finish the scene, a woman with her two young children (all dressed in post-war mourning) accompanied the body through the funeral, respresenting the family this man left behind when he died.
After a brief eulogy and funeral service, the flag-draped coffin was returned to the hearst and transported to its burial plot, followed by the crowd of witnesses. We were kept back from the plot by ropes, but it didn’t matter. We could still see as the coffin was lowered down and final words spoken over it. Then came the poinent finale, a scene which stirs emotion in me still today. One by one, the woman and her two children dropped roses onto the coffin now resting in its grave. The sight of the youngest child, a boy maybe four or five years old, dropping his single flower into the grave brought tears to the eyes of many, a reminder of the family of this young man and so many others who never learned the fate of their loved ones.
And then it was over and the crowd drifted away to allow the cemetery staff to finish the burial. I was proud to see that so many people had taken time out of their lives to attend the burial of a person they didn’t know, a person that would never be identified, who had died so long ago. We, standing there on that early autumn day, were esentially the family of that young man, mourning him in a way his real family never had a chance to. So many families never knew the fates of their loved ones and so many soldiers were buried with no fanfare or tears shed for them, buried in the crash and rush of war. And it is appropriate that we consider ourselves the families of these men killed long ago, for their history is our history, their story has determined our story. Whether one can trace their line back to an ancestor who fought or not, these lives resonate through the years to affect us still today. We are now the holders of their stories, the keepers of history. That day were were drawn together to witness and mourn a homecoming that happened 147 years late.